This piece is partially inspired/provoked by a certain article about Brandon Sanderson. As you’d expect, the entire Cosmere/fanbase is inflamed and incensed about such unbridled sentiment. It’s a free world, and everyone is welcome to air their thoughts. However, being remotely condescending and demeaning is where I draw the line. I have some controversial literary opinions of my own, but I don’t think it’s right to insult an author or their fanbase simply because you don’t like their style.
As a result, I’m inclined to share my own list of top fantasy authors.
I don’t expect you to agree with my list. We all have subjective opinions, after all. But I’ll try to explain the logic behind my choice. Again, you’re not compelled to agree with it. It is what it is.
The logic for my ranking
I rank my top five favourite fantasy authors based on the following criteria:
I like great fantasy stories, unique from other stories, that provoke contemplation on real-world issues and grip you from start to finish.
The capacity to build stunning worlds is a massive green flag for me. Not many authors successfully pull this off, but it’s a huge credit when an author gains renown for great worldbuilding.
Another quality I appreciate in a fantasy author is when they can write awesome battle scenes. It’s not often the dealbreaker for me, as I’ve enjoyed books like A Game of Thrones, where large-scale battle scenes are far and few in between. However, a writer who can execute it flawlessly is a great writer, in my opinion.
These days, many epic fantasy authors do away with romance completely in their subplots. Except it’s YA, you’d be hard-pressed to find many major fantasy titles with predominant romance themes.
As it’s so hard to write, particularly in a subgenre (epic fantasy) primarily dominated by male authors, fantasy books with strong themes of romance that actually thrive are awesome, in my opinion.
I believe that to appreciate best an author’s ability to develop his characters, you have to see them do it over several books- three, at the barest minimum. For an author to keep you interested in a character, or characters, for several books in a series, they must be seriously good at character development.
Note that this isn’t the totality of my reasons for ranking my top five fantasy authors. But, these are the major reasons.
Now, I make my presentation, ranking from fifth to first place.
5. Terry Goodkind
This is admittedly one of my more controversial choices. Many readers of his Sword of Truth series talk about the author’s over-glorification of sensitive themes like rape and sexuality and penchant for dwelling on the socio-political dichotomy of communism/dictatorship and free enterprise capitalism/democracy.
However ironic it sounds, these are the precise reasons why I loved the series. He writes romance and erotica better than any fantasy author I’ve ever read, and his willingness to write sensitivity without censorship is something I greatly appreciate.
His magic system and worldbuilding are also top-notch. Nevertheless, it’s his ability to elicit strong emotions from his audience that makes him one of the best, in my opinion.
I was sad when Terry Goodkind died, and the lights of the fantasy world are less bright without his keen wit and wonderful imagination.
4. Brandon Sanderson
Fourth on my list is the popular Brandon Sanderson. The never-sleeping word-churning machine. The anointed successor to the great Robert Jordan and the brainchild behind the Cosmere.
If worldbuilding had a nickname, it would be Brandon Sanderson. From Elantris to Mistborn and Way of Kings, the author’s ability to build worlds and populate them with intriguing characters, magic systems and unique cultures is unrivalled by any other author, save for Tolkien himself.
His potential is even scarier when you realize he is still at the peak of his career. Of course, scenarios can only be better appreciated in retrospect, so perhaps, many decades from now, when Brandon Sanderson is a proper old man, the fantasy readership will better appreciate his legendary status.
I like Brandon Sanderson for his ability to develop magic systems and write awesome fight scenes. I mean, he’s singlehandedly responsible for writing what is, in my opinion, the most awesome fight scene ever in fantasy (The Last Battle in A Memory of Light). This goes without mentioning the multiple large-scale battles we’ve already witnessed so far in the Stormlight Archives.
The fanbase is huge, and the merch is selling fast. There’s no need to be jealous. Just appreciate his greatness now when he’s alive.
3. Joe Abercrombie
By all rights, Joe Abercrombie should be right at the very top of this list. In terms of sheer writing ability, only perhaps one other author’s (we’ll get into him subsequently) works hold a candle to Mr Abercrombie’s.
Joe Abercrombie wasn’t even the first author to popularize the GrimDark subgenre. That honour goes to Glen Cook and his Black Company series. Still, it’s quite telling that Joe Abercrombie’s Twitter handle is @LordGrimdark. The man isn’t just good. He acknowledges his own greatness and isn’t shy to tell you that he’s the master of the subgenre.
Few will disagree with his claim. Joe Abercrombie is the GrimDark author that all aspiring and even established GrimDark authors want to be like. It’s not even about his superb antiheroes and wonderful plots. Rather, it’s about his god-touched writing.
Joe Abercrombie’s works are to fantasy what Michelangelo’s pieces are to visual art, and it’s a fact.
2. Steven Erikson
We’re getting close to the peak of the pantheon, so I think it’s time to introduce Steven Erikson. You most likely have heard of him, even if you haven’t read Gardens of the Moon or the more recent The God is Not Willing.
Where to begin with Steven Erikson?
The first thing you should know about Steven Erikson is that no author writes quite like him. His style is so unique that a fan of his work could identify a piece he penned, even if it were written anonymously. It’s like hearing Beyonce’s voice on air- you know it’s Beyonce; no one can mimic those chilling, vibrating, strong soprano vocals.
In terms of worldbuilding, few authors match up to Steven Erikson’s standards. The world of the Malazan Book of The Fallen is a yardstick in worldbuilding today. Although his works are categorically GrimDark, Erikson writes grey characters better than anyone else, save for probably LordGrimdark himself. However, even this claim is debatable.
I love Steven Erikson and think he’s the greatest fantasy author of all time, but for a certain, James Oliver Rigney Jr. You know him by another name…
1. Robert Jordan
Robert Jordan wrote himself into myth and fantasy folklore the day he first penned the first chapter of the Wheel of Time.
Perhaps he thought it a bit of fun to write about so many cultures, throwing in a bit of Tolkien-like good vs evil plotline and peppering everything else with tons of strong female characters. Whatever he had in his head back then, I don’t think he ever imagined that his work would be mentioned in the same breath as the genre pioneer.
Today, fans of his series can bash Amazon and Rafe Judkins for literary misappropriation solely because of the sheer level of detail portrayed in his books. I mean, it should be illegal for a fantasy book to contain that much level of detail, primarily because many authors have tried the same technique and failed.
In fact, part of the reason why the Malazan-Wheel of Time debate continues to rage is that Malazan fans are disillusioned with the incessant descriptions of skirts, tents, greetings, dressings, mountains, and inns. If you’re not the type of reader who enjoys such intricate detailing, the Wheel of Time is certainly not for you.
But, if you enjoy such details as much as you enjoy the story, you’ll agree that Robert Jordan is the greatest fantasy author of all time.
Whether or not I include this section, I have already exposed myself to barbs from the fanbase, nerdy readers looking at me in shock, astounded and thinking I should visit a shrink for such ludicrous choices. However, I’m a gentleman, so I’ll briefly touch on some of the most controversial absentees on the list and why they aren’t in my top five.
You can’t crucify me for not including Master Martin. The story became boring after A Storm of Swords, and the author has forgotten his original fanbase. Don’t pick bones with me; go slug it out with your fave who’s forgotten you exist for over a decade.
It wasn’t easy to omit this brilliant author. It’s crazy that his first book, The Name of The Wind, made such a bang. The second one, The Wise Man’s Fear, somehow managed to outdo the first. It’s quite telling that even if the author never releases the book’s next instalment, the Kingkiller Chronicle will continue to be ranked as one of the all-time fantasy greats.
Mark Lawrence is a god in his own right. Not just in my books, unfortunately. Even if I don’t really like the author’s books, I’ve read enough of them (six, to be precise) to rate him highly.
His ability to perfectly blend humour with violence is something I’ve seen only in Joe Abercrombie’s works. If Joe Abercrombie is the Lord of GrimDark, then Mark Lawrence is one of his most powerful chiefs, if not the most influential.
You’re free to spit fire and brimstone in the comments sections. Believe me, I would, too, if I saw such a controversial list of the top fantasy authors.
Nevertheless, I’m sure the majority will agree with most of my inclusions if not all. If you’re not, don’t be shy; please share your thoughts below.